Even with sound and vision restored, Ed Miliband did not make a good speech
Published by www.politics.co.uk 27 September 2011
“My message to the public is this” – at which precise moment all broadcast coverage of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party Conference speech was cut off. For some moments television viewers saw his face frozen as his vital message became a silent blank.
No democratic leader, least of all a decent and thoughtful man like Ed Miliband, deserves such cruel luck. But, frankly, his eventual message to the public was not really worth waiting for. “We know that waiting for the Tories to fail won’t win us back your trust” – a bumbling sentence with a negative message. He followed it with a machine-gun burst of negatives: “we won’t deserve your trust if that’s what we do. Paying homage to past leaders won’t win back your trust…. Asking to carry on in government won’t win us back your trust. And we won’t deserve it if that’s what we do.”
There were too many such negative statements in Ed Miliband’s speech. “Now is not the time for the same old answers… an economy and a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values…” They were dreary and clumsy and imprecise and they prevented Ed Miliband from achieving the two vital tasks of this Conference speech.
The first and most important was to make himself interesting to the British people. Opposition leaders always have a tough time doing this and it has got even worse under the coalition. For some months now, Labour strategists have complained that the media have paid more attention to differences between the coalition parties than to Labour as the official opposition. That makes it all the more important for Ed Miliband to be colourful and dramatic. This speech was a golden opportunity to launch some zingers – phrases which would get remembered and quoted and recycled. He did not deliver them. There were no vivid metaphors or contrasting pairs or trios or cadences or any other well-tested tools of successful oratory. It is of course the oldest trick in the orator’s playbook to make a virtue of avoiding oratorical tricks and establish a claim to honesty and plain speaking. But I don’t think that Ed Miliband and his writers were pulling off that trick – they simply could not come up with any zingers.
Perhaps wisely they did not attempt much humour. Very few speakers can bring it off and some are a total disaster (with Mrs Thatcher a joke stood as much chance as a hedgehog on a motorway). Ed Miliband made quite a good joke early on about his nose (he certainly enjoyed it himself). Otherwise he limited himself to two about Nick Clegg, which were not only tired but broke the flow of his speech. The best bit of humour was accidental: “too much of what happened was based on the wrong values. That’s where New Labour came in.”
To make himself interesting to the British people, it was vital for Ed Miliband to show that he was interested in them. He and his writers clearly wanted to demonstrate his understanding of the everyday lives and feelings of “normal” people and contrast it with David Cameron’s supposed concern only for the privileged. The speech did not succeed in this. One reason was technical: the speech was very confused in its pronouns. Both “we” and “you” sometimes meant “the Labour party and its members in the Conference Hall” and sometimes meant “the people ofBritain.” Moreover, the key concept (the decent majority ofBritain) was defined too often by negation: “the people who don’t make a fuss, who don’t hack phones, loot shops” and many more not-examples. (Why incidentally did Ed Miliband think it a good idea to praise people “who don’t make a fuss”? These are people who put up with badly-run businesses, bad healthcare, bad public transport, bad government and bad behaviour. And they probably don’t vote).
Another major problem is that although Ed Miliband himself seems to be a nice chap he does not do empathy very well. When Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain” he made millions of Americans believe that he understood their personal lives and cared deeply about them. Ed Miliband makes other people’s pain sound like a piece of research.
The second big task of the speech was to offer the British people solid reasons to believe that he would run a better government than David Cameron’s. He did half of this job. He suggested, at times powerfully, that David Cameron was certain to fail because he had fundamentally wrong ideas about how to govern. He depicted Cameron as protector of an old failed system based on false assumptions and bad values, which rewards undeserving people. Plenty of politicians have done well with this approach – and not only democratic ones.
What was missing from the speech was any clear idea of how Ed Miliband’s government proposed to punish the undeserving and punish the deserving. When he did put out such an idea it raised more questions than it answered. “Take social housing…. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t? My answer is no.” (Yet another negative statement.) “Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility. And I say every council should recognise the contribution that people are making.” Try to write those ideas into law. It cannot be done. They are a recipe for caprice and outright prejudice. If that is the basis of Ed Miliband’s government – politicians defining people as virtuous or anti-social – we will be on a road that leads to Enver Hoxha’sAlbania.
I don’t believe that this speech will do much good to Ed Miliband or his party, either in terms of style or content. The biggest disappointment is the peroration. The job of a peroration is both immediate and long-term: to make hearts beat faster at the moment of delivery but also to feed minds with something to remember. Ed Miliband and his speechwriters stuffed his peroration with stale politician-language which has been heard a million times and has lost all power to stimulate emotion or belief. “To write a new chapter in our country’s history… a new bargain… fulfilling the promise ofBritain” Oh puh-lease!
Richard Heller was formerly political adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has been a professional speechwriter for over thirty years and is the author of a standard manual High Impact Speeches (published by Prentice Hall Business). His recent novel The Network contains several examples of good and bad public speeches.